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May 10, 2012 / baileymoser

Blood? It’s Not Funny! Humour in Science Writing

“This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” (pp. 10)

In the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, author Mark Haddon investigates the death of Wellington the poodle, a complex tale of lies and emotion, distrust and heartache, through the lens of Christopher’s school assignment.

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries in the world and every prime number up to 7,507. In the opening paragraph, he addresses the dead dog in Mrs Shears’ front lawn, stabbed in the side with a garden fork, and the hit to a policeman that put him in jail. After all, this is a murder mystery novel.

Or is it? Consider this excerpt of Christopher’s time in jail:

 “At 1:28 a.m. a policeman opened the door of the cell and told me that there was someone to see me.

I stepped outside. Father was standing in the corridor. He held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan. I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other. We do this because sometimes Father wants to give me a hug, but I do not like hugging people, so we do this instead, and it means that he loves me.

… [The policeman] was an inspector. I could tell because he wasn’t wearing a uniform. He also had a very hairy nose. It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils.

He said, ‘I have spoken to your father and he says that you didn’t mean to hit the policeman.’

I didn’t say anything because this wasn’t a question.

He said, ‘Did you mean to hit the policeman?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

He squeezed his face and said, ‘But you didn’t mean to hurt the policeman?’

I thought about this and said, ‘No. I didn’t mean to hurt the policeman. I just wanted him to stop touching me.’” (pp. 21-22)

This passage surely wasn’t solely intended to make the reader laugh—what is Haddon’s intention?

Well, we learn that Christopher’s reaction to the policeman’s forcefulness was due to symptoms of autism; he does not like to be touched by other people, even his own father.

Is humour used effectively to convey information about Christopher’s autism here? Imagine if the passage had been written in a dramatic murder-mystery fashion:

“In the dead of night, the inspector approached the cell alongside the detainee’s furious father. The door creaked opened, and father approached son with an emotionless, alien-like greeting. The inspector didn’t know what to expect from the young criminal. He showed no remorse and continued to resist authority—not responding to interrogation—yet carried himself in a placid, uncomfortable manner. What was he capable of?”

My James Patterson imitation is not nearly as affective.

Haddon has a knack for relaying information about psychology, mathematics, astronomy and more in a humorous way. In fact, on page 11 the reader comprehends Olber’s paradox without even knowing it! It is the subtleties of Haddon’s humour that make it so fun to learn.

How does he communicate science through humour in ways different than other medium, say comics like xkcd or the article @sthompson addressed last week? Let me know what you think!

References:

Haddon, M. (2004). The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Sydney: Random House Australia (Pty) Ltd.

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10 Comments

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  1. amess02 / May 11 2012 4:27 pm

    Haddon is very good at presenting subtle humour within his science writing, I have been an avid reader of similarly styled comics like xkcd and abstruse goose for years and being told difficult concepts through humour make it so much more relatable.
    I first tried reading the Curious Case when I was 14 and did not enjoy it at all, possibly because I was not mature enough to understand the subtleties. Reading it now however is a completely different experience, I am gaining a lot more insight into it through the humour but also understanding how hard the character finds it to interact with the world.

    Humour is the best tool when trying to get people to relate to your work, it definitely is something that draws me in.

  2. djasudasen / May 12 2012 12:06 am

    Great post Bailey! Humour in science is an interesting one because if you get it wrong, it just doesn’t work at all. I wasn’t entirely convinced until I started reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. If you haven’t read it yet you should add it to the list because it’s a great one for us Science Writers. Roach tells the story of exactly what happens to our bodies after we die in a very elegant by wry manner. She makes you think about things you’ve never thought of and explains the science in a very accessible way.
    I find with subtleties that writers like Haddon present make their works interesting to read again and again because with each read you’re picking up on things you may have missed the first time. Humour is definitely an effective tool to draw the non-scientist in.

    • baileymoser / May 14 2012 3:47 pm

      I haven’t read it yet! Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. noelynn / May 13 2012 3:05 am

    Interesting post, Bailey. I enjoyed reading about Christopher’s story but am not sure if it was humorous. Perhaps it was more blood related that humor that was found in the story. I mean the father and son relationship was speaking out its truth more obvious than the humor it contains.

    Moreover, as Muza commented in a post on humour last week, I think some of us had the difficulty of seeing this as a humour. But it is true that a little bit of humour in a writing or any form of presentation for that matter won’t do any harm. It adds a flavor to the written piece I suppose. While we struggle to add humour to our writing, I think it does a good thing.

    • baileymoser / May 14 2012 4:04 pm

      To be fair, there IS a lot of ‘bloody’ humour in this book, but it’s not all that way. Here’s a quote I found where Haddon is educating his reader and using humour to add flavor as you suggested:

      “And this shows that sometimes people want to be stupid and they do not want to know the truth.

      And it shows that something called Occam’s razor is true. And Occam’s razor is not a razor that men shave with but a Law, and it says

      *Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.*

      Which is Latin and it means

      *No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.*

      Which means that a murder victim is usually killed by someone known to them and fairies are made out of paper and you can’t talk to someone who is dead.” (pp. 113)

  4. chimk / May 13 2012 8:41 am

    Usage of humour to convey hard principles is actually helpful and like the way it has been used in Boone’s story, it is attracting readers attention to findout the essence of the whole story, howere I would like to agree with Noelyn it can be hard to actually pull out usage of humour in some stories, i believe it also depends on how experienced you are in these kinds of stories.

  5. bonnyp / May 14 2012 7:27 am

    The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time is one of my favourite books, so I am happy to see it come up on the blog. I agree that the book is humourous but not super funny – it doesn’t make you laugh out loud but it is written in an entertaining style.

    I think that Haddon has written about science in a very clever and interesting way. While it is unusual to write about autism in a novel format in the first place, the first-person limited narration is excellent at showing what it is like to look at the world when you have autism. It allows the reader to have an insight into autism in a very touching and human way, and I don’t think that this could have been achieved through anecdotes in a science article or even in a novel with omniscient or third-person narration.

    The subtlety of Haddon’s writing also means that while it is never stated directly in the book that Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome, a reader knows that he has autism and why he behaves as he does. The maths and science concepts in the book also flow into the text as they are part of the character. I don’t like maths, but as I became interested in the character of Christopher I became involved in his interests as well. I think that the interesting thing about this book is not just the way it uses humour to talk about science but the way that science can be communicated through fiction.

    • baileymoser / May 14 2012 4:07 pm

      Beautifully articulated!

      Good point about this being a fiction novel. Although the concepts in the book are scientific, they are somewhat disjointed and used to support the plot of the story. I wonder; Would the fictitious style be effective for a more consistent scientific theme?

  6. gracerussell1 / May 15 2012 3:16 am

    Noelynn described it perfectly for me, there is a certain ‘flavour’ that the writing style brings. I enjoyed reading this style, i found it easy and it put a smile on my face at times. However, humour is so subjective to the individual and as like bonnyp, i found it humourous, but not funny. Which is just an interpretation of my own discretion.
    It can be difficult to display humour in science, but i do think Haddon has a perfect balance.
    Good blog post Bailey.

  7. annagardiner / May 15 2012 5:24 am

    Ahh such a good book. It’s so refreshing to read something written from such an unusual point of view. I think Haddon’s use of humour, is brilliant and clever. Because his writing is humorous, but not exactly laugh out loud funny, it respects Christopher and his condition. We’re not encouraged to laugh at his autism but to see it has an amusing side. In that sense I think humour is really effective at conveying Christopher’s autism.

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